I am writing my PhD thesis and I've realized that I rely excessively in box plots in order to compare distributions. Which other alternatives do you like for achieving this task?

I'd also like to ask if you know any other resource as the R gallery in which I can inspire myself with different ideas on data visualization.

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    $\begingroup$ I think the choice also depends on the features you want to compare. You might consider histograms, hist; smoothed densities, density; QQ-plots qqplot; stem-and-leaf plots (a bit ancient) stem. In addition, the Kolmogorov-Smirnov test might be a good complement ks.test. $\endgroup$ – user10525 May 13 '12 at 23:44
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    $\begingroup$ How about a histogram, a kernal density estimate, or a violin plot? $\endgroup$ – Alexander May 13 '12 at 23:44
  • $\begingroup$ Stem and leaf plots are like histograms but with the added feature that they allow you to determine the exact value of of each observation. It contains more information about the data than you get from a boxplot or q histogram. $\endgroup$ – Michael R. Chernick May 13 '12 at 23:54
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    $\begingroup$ @Procrastinator, that has the makings of a good answer, if you wanted to elaborate it a little, you could convert that into answer. Pedro, you might also be interested in this, which covers initial graphical data exploration. It's not exactly what you're asking for, but might be of interest to you nonetheless. $\endgroup$ – gung - Reinstate Monica May 14 '12 at 1:38
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    $\begingroup$ Thanks guys, I am aware of those options and have used some of them already. I have certainly not explored the leaf plot. I'll have a deeper look on the link you've provided and on @Procastinator 's answer $\endgroup$ – pedrosaurio May 14 '12 at 9:24

I am going to elaborate my comment, as suggested by @gung. I will also include the violin plot suggested by @Alexander, for completeness. Some of these tools can be used for comparing more than two samples.

# Required packages


# Simulate from a normal and skew-normal distributions
x = rnorm(250,0,1)
y = rsn(250,0,1,5)

# Separated histograms

# Combined histograms
hist(x, xlim=c(-4,4),ylim=c(0,1), col="red",probability=T)
hist(y, add=T, col="blue",probability=T)

# Boxplots

# Separated smoothed densities

# Combined smoothed densities

# Stem-and-leaf plots

# Back-to-back stem-and-leaf plots

# Violin plot (suggested by Alexander)

# QQ-plot

# Kolmogorov-Smirnov test

# six-numbers summary

# moment-based summary

# Empirical ROC curve
xx = c(-Inf, sort(unique(c(x,y))), Inf)
sens = sapply(xx, function(t){mean(x >= t)})
spec = sapply(xx, function(t){mean(y < t)})

plot(0, 0, xlim = c(0, 1), ylim = c(0, 1), type = 'l')
segments(0, 0, 1, 1, col = 1)
lines(1 - spec, sens, type = 'l', col = 2, lwd = 1)

# Beanplots

# Empirical CDF

I hope this helps.


After exploring a bit more on your suggestions I found this kind of plot to complement @Procastinator 's answer. It is called 'bee swarm' and is a mixture of box plot with violin plot with the same detail level as scatter plot.

beeswarm R package

example of beeswarm plot

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    $\begingroup$ I have also included beanplot. $\endgroup$ – user10525 May 16 '12 at 14:59

A note:

You want to answer questions about your data, and not create questions about the visualization method itself. Often, boring is better. It does make comparisons of comparisons easier to comprehend too.

An Answer:

The need for simple formatting beyond R's base package probably explains the popularity of Hadley's ggplot package in R.


# Simulate from a normal and skew-normal distributions
x = rnorm(250,0,1)
y = rsn(250,0,1,5)

## I put the data into a data frame for ease of use

dat = data.frame(x,y=y[1:250]) ## y[1:250] is used to remove attributes of y
dat = stack(dat)

## Density plots with ggplot2
     aes(x=values, fill=ind, y=..scaled..)) +
        geom_density() +
        opts(title = "Some Example Densities") +
        opts(plot.title = theme_text(size = 20, colour = "Black"))

     aes(x=values, fill=ind, y=..scaled..)) +
        geom_density() +
        facet_grid(ind ~ .) +
        opts(title = "Some Example Densities \n Faceted") +
        opts(plot.title = theme_text(size = 20, colour = "Black"))

     aes(x=values, fill=ind)) +
        geom_density() +
        facet_grid(ind ~ .) +
        opts(title = "Some Densities \n This time without \"scaled\" ") +
        opts(plot.title = theme_text(size = 20, colour = "Black"))

## You can do histograms in ggplot2 as well...
## but I don't think that you can get all the good stats 
## in a table, as with hist
## e.g. stats = hist(x)
     aes(x=values, fill=ind)) +
        geom_histogram(binwidth=.1) +
        facet_grid(ind ~ .) +
        opts(title = "Some Example Histograms \n Faceted") +
        opts(plot.title = theme_text(size = 20, colour = "Black"))

## Note, I put in code to mimic the default "30 bins" setting
     aes(x=values, fill=ind)) +
        geom_histogram(binwidth=diff(range(dat$values))/30) +
        opts(title = "Some Example Histograms") +
        opts(plot.title = theme_text(size = 20, colour = "Black"))

Finally, I've found that adding a simple background helps. Which is why I wrote "bgfun" which can be called by panel.first

bgfun = function (color="honeydew2", linecolor="grey45", addgridlines=TRUE) {
    tmp = par("usr")
    rect(tmp[1], tmp[3], tmp[2], tmp[4], col = color)
    if (addgridlines) {
        ylimits = par()$usr[c(3, 4)]
        abline(h = pretty(ylimits, 10), lty = 2, col = linecolor)
plot(rnorm(100), panel.first=bgfun())

## Plot with original example data
op = par(mfcol=c(2,1))
hist(x, panel.first=bgfun(), col='antiquewhite1', main='Bases belonging to us')
hist(y, panel.first=bgfun(color='darkolivegreen2'), 
    col='antiquewhite2', main='Bases not belonging to us')
mtext( 'all your base are belong to us', 1, 4)
  • $\begingroup$ (+1) Nice answer. I'd add alpha=0.5 to the first plot (to geom_density()) so the overlapping parts aren't hidden. $\endgroup$ – smillig May 17 '12 at 20:00
  • $\begingroup$ I agree about the alpha=.5 I couldn't remember the syntax! $\endgroup$ – geneorama May 17 '12 at 22:33

Here's a nice tutorial from Nathan Yau's Flowing Data blog using R and US state-level crime data. It shows:

  • Box-and-Whisker Plots (which you already use)
  • Histograms
  • Kernel Density Plots
  • Rug Plots
  • Violin Plots
  • Bean Plots (a weird combo of a box plot, density plot, with a rug in the middle).

Lately, I find myself plotting CDFs much more than histograms.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ +1 for kernel density plots. They're a lot less 'busy' than histograms for plotting multiple populations. $\endgroup$ – Doresoom Nov 6 '12 at 14:39

There is a concept specifically for comparing distributions, which ought to be better known: the relative distribution.

Let's say we have random variables $Y_0, Y$ with cumulative distribution functions $F_0, F$ and we want to compare them, using $F_0$ as a reference.

Define $$ R = F_0(Y) $$ The distribution of the random variable $R$ is the relative distribution of $Y$, with $Y_0$ as reference. Note that we have that $F_0(Y_0)$ has always the uniform distribution (with continuous random variables, if the random variables are discrete this will be approximate).

Let us look at an example. The website http://www.math.hope.edu/swanson/data/cellphone.txt gives data on the length of male and female students' last phone call. Let us express the distribution of phone call length for male students, with women students as reference.

Relative distribution of phone call length, men compared with women

We can see immediately that men (in this college class ...) tend to have shorter phone calls than women ... and this is expressed directly, in a very direct way. On the $x$ axis is shown the proportions in the women's distribution, and we can read that, for example, for the time $T$ (whatever it is, its value is not shown) such that 20% of women's calls were shorter (or equal) to that, the relative density for men in that interval varies between about 1.3 and 1.4. If we approximate (mentally from the graph) the mean relative density in that interval as 1.35, we see that the proportion of men in that interval is about 35% higher than the proportion of women. That corresponds to 27% of the men in that interval.

We can also make the same plot with pointwise confidence intervals around the relative density curve:

plot of relative distribution with pointwise confidence interval

The wide confidence bands in this case reflects the small sample size.

There is a book about this method: Handcock

The R code for the plot is here:

phone <-  read.table(file="phone.txt", header=TRUE)
men  <-  phone[, 1]
women <-  phone[, 3]
reldist(men, women)
title("length of mens last phonecall with women as reference")

For the last plot change to:

reldist(men, women, ci=TRUE)
title("length of mens last phonecall with women as reference\nwith pointwise confidence interval (95%)")

Note that the plots are produced with use of kernel density estimation, with degree of smoothness chosen via gcv (generalized cross validation).

Some more details about the relative density. Let $Q_0$ be the quantile function corresponding to $F_0$. Let $r$ be a quantile of $R$ with $y_r$ the corresponding value on the original measurement scale. Then the relative density can be written as $$ g(r) = \frac{f(Q_0(r))}{f_0(Q_0(r))} $$ or on the original measurement scale as $g(r)=\frac{f(y_r)}{f_0(y_r)}$. This shows that the relative density can be interpreted as a ratio of densities. But, in the first form, with argument $r$, it is also a density in own right, integrating to one over the interval $(0,1)$. That makes it a good starting point for inference.


I like to just estimate the densities and plot them,

  Sepal.Length Sepal.Width Petal.Length Petal.Width Species
1          5.1         3.5          1.4         0.2  setosa
2          4.9         3.0          1.4         0.2  setosa
3          4.7         3.2          1.3         0.2  setosa
4          4.6         3.1          1.5         0.2  setosa
5          5.0         3.6          1.4         0.2  setosa
6          5.4         3.9          1.7         0.4  setosa

ggplot(data = iris) + geom_density(aes(x = Sepal.Length, color = Species, fill = Species), alpha = .2)

enter image description here

  • $\begingroup$ Why do you colour the inside of the pdf (below the curve)? $\endgroup$ – wolfies Apr 18 '16 at 14:44
  • $\begingroup$ I think it looks prettier. $\endgroup$ – TrynnaDoStat Apr 18 '16 at 15:19
  • $\begingroup$ Perhaps - but it can convey the incorrect impression - of conveying mass or area, that may be visually inappropriate. $\endgroup$ – wolfies Apr 18 '16 at 17:10
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    $\begingroup$ It conveys empirical probability mass. $\endgroup$ – Lepidopterist Mar 24 '17 at 18:55

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